5 Questions with Dr. Robert Abzug

One of our favorite features here at AMS::ATX is our 5 Questions series, where we sit down with faculty members in American Studies and talk shop. Today we are thrilled to share a recent interview with Dr. Robert Abzug, Audre and Bernard Rapoport Regents Chair of Jewish Studies, Director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, and Professor of History and American Studies here at the University of Texas, Austin.


What has been your favorite project to work on and why?

I would say two projects, of course. How can you have just one? I wouldn’t call it exactly my favorite, but it was the most compelling one, and that was the book I published in 1985, about the liberation of the concentration camps. I did oral history work with G.I.s and it was all from the point of view of American soldiers, and I used diaries and letters from the time. What do you do with this shock of recognition? It was so compelling, and so unnerving, that everything else since seems like artisan work. This just was right down to the bone. It was an amazing transformation in me, just thinking about what was important.

My favorite project, that makes me happy and expansive, is the one I’m just finishing right now. It’s a biography of Rollo May, the American psychologist. A lot of people over 60, over 50 even, will remember him as one of the psycho-gurus of the sixties and seventies. Really his history goes way back. It was actually an accident that I got into the project, and that’s always fun. I had to become literate in continental philosophy, I had to become literate in modern Protestant theology, as well as psychology, certainly. And I knew Rollo for the last eight years of his life, so it was this challenge of writing dispassionately about somebody whom I had gotten to know face to face. It’s all about psychology and religion, and where people seek spiritual guidance. So that’s been really compelling. Also, the people I’ve met—I’ve never known so many psychotherapists in my life, and it hasn’t cost me fifty, or a hundred, or a hundred and fifty dollars an hour, either. They are happy to talk to me, which is an unusual role for them, of course. They usually like to listen.

But that project’s almost done—I’m hoping that at the end of my leave it’ll be done and in print in 2015. I’ve done other work in Pre-Civil War America, all of which has been important. But when you write about dead people, it’s not quite as interesting as this mixture of history and living people, and its not quite as hairy, either. There aren’t people from the 19th century who could potentially sue you for what you’re saying.

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations within academia or within society as a whole?

I think I’ve always been interested in one question that is always there, but rarely comes to the fore, because its usually chopped into different parts: essentially, the ways that a changing society understands its moral and ethical commitments and comes to understand them in new ways. For instance, the Rollo May project is really about the interpenetration of American religious life and spiritual seeking with psychotherapy. And the United States is just about the only country where this is a major cultural phenomenon. In most countries, even in the West, psychotherapy is a medical issue. That’s changing a little in Europe, but the United States, with its peculiar religious culture, is quite interesting that way.

Of course, to the degree that the liberation of the camps, and the newsreels and the photographs that it created, is, along with the atom bomb, a kind of watershed in consciousness about human destructiveness, this was a very compelling thing to me. Potentially, what I study fits into just about any dialogue, but usually doesn’t fit into any one dialogue. With my earlier work, which was all about reform, and initially about abolitionism, it would have been simpler to answer that. I think my frame of historical thinking has gotten more philosophical, or academics have gotten more specialized, or something like that. I see this question of the formation of moral consciousness hovering over most topics as a metafield, and folks do read my work. But I’m not involved in any of the au courant debates at all, though they very much inform my thinking. For instance, gender issues are central to the Rollo May book, but it is not a book about gender per se.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

My mentor’s book about slavery, Kenneth Stampp’s Peculiar Institution was an inspiration to me in terms of what a historian could write and how a historian really could affect change in some ways. When you publish a revisionist book about slavery a couple of years after Brown v. Board, a controversial book that said slavery was nasty and assumed racial equality… So Stampp is always an inspiration. I also think there are artistic endeavors that inspire me.

One of the things I’ve always had is a rather eclectic sense of culture and passion about literature, music, and art, but it’s hard to know how it all comes out to influence my work and life. Early on, when I was taking photographs, Robert Frank was a big influence, when I was a teenager. I think another influence was simply being involved in anti-war and civil rights politics, just the human experience of it. And pondering how well anyone is capable of translating that into a history, or even a fiction. I did not go to Vietnam, but a number of my friends did, and they always complained, when they got home, that nobody tells the story right. And I think that’s certainly a judgment, whether it’s a film or a novel or a history, but I think it’s also a challenge. How do you translate what you know are real things, real feelings, how do you imbue that into scholarship.

And lately, in private, I’ve been working on a project of portraiture in photography that has all sorts of interesting meanings to me. How does one get beyond caricature? How do you get beyond that to get comfortable with people who certainly are strangers? Or even near strangers, friends? But it’s mostly questions. I’m always unsatisfied with my own answers, and I’m rarely satisfied with other people’s answers. War and Peace, that inspired me.

What is your background as a scholar and how does it inform and motivate your current teaching and research?

I was a pretty straightforward historian. I was a history major at Harvard and a history PhD at Berkeley. Harvard had an American Studies program, interestingly, American Civ, but Berkeley did not believe in inter-disciplinary work and so I had a fairly straight-forward history education and I like to think that what it did was to ground me with some very traditional skills, research skills, writing skills, narrative skills that have served me pretty well. When I got here in ’78, this very floor in Garrison Hall was where American Studies was, and I almost immediately got to know everyone in American Studies, even though I was a member of the history department.  But there’s another strand, too.

When I was in college, I took a course with Erik Erikson, the psychologist, and when I got out to Berkeley, I started taking courses at the San Francisco psychoanalytic institute. I was offered a path to becoming a lay analyst. But I decided I couldn’t listen to people constantly without saying anything. Besides, I had a whole raft of work to do in history across the bay. Nonetheless, psychoanalysis of a variety of types influenced the way I thought about history, and I considered that an education, even though there was no degree attached to it. It was not until the mid-eighties that I thought about even writing about psychotherapy as a historical phenomenon. But there is a strand that goes from one to the next. In terms of art and photography, I sort of grew up in a family of artists—my older brother was an artist and a musician, my younger brother was a musician. The only place I could fit was with a camera, because I didn’t have his talent.

But I’ve always been really taken with the arts, so it’s always played a part in that mix of things. I took a lot of art history in college, and when I could in graduate school. You can see the things you study. The education I got at Harvard was, I guess, an education, but I didn’t like the place all that much. But starting when I went to graduate school in Berkeley, spending six months in Africa, and being involved in all sorts of political movements, that was an education. That is inevitably as influential on how I think about things, and not necessarily linearly, but just the cumulative experience of the world that comes together with the book learning and such. It’s the school of life.

What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

As a private citizen, I want to continue work on this portraiture project. It’s a collection of pictures about people, regular people, but sets of them about individuals. Not just one, but twenty, thirty. I find that part of my life very sustaining. And very private. I don’t put it out there. Who knows whether I will. I’m already signed up to do a book in the Texas bookshelf series. So that’s part of my future, about insiders and outsiders and the growth of the Texas myth. Also, I’ve been interested, because I’ve been married to a Montanan for 33 years, in that culture, the culture of the West. Not so much as a Western historian or a Western scholar. The angle I’ve begun to think about is the way in which minorities, in one case Jews, in another case urban Native Americans, interact, how they live in those kinds of societies. And they live OK. It’s not a question of bad news all the time. Having been born in a city of eight million people, and spending a month each year in a state of one million people, is an interesting phenomenon, and it does interesting things to the way you look at the way different people live. I’m just curious about those things. I’ve already given one lecture about it, and I’m going to give one at Tulane in February about a particular incident in the life of Billings, Montana. Where it’s going to go I have no idea. I have always felt that tenure was nothing if it wasn’t license to do seriously what you wanted to, and not worry about meeting the preconceptions of your colleagues. The Texas book will be the focus of some serious archival research or oral interviews. Beyond that I don’t know. Right now, I’m looking to finish the last one hundred pages of the Rollo May book. But life’s the project, and not any one project.

If you had to describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say?

It’s the identity crisis question! One time, when I was head of American Studies and trying to move it towards departmental status, the new President of the University of Texas, Bob Berdahl, a German historian, said to me, “I’ve never really understood what American Studies is.” I told him, and it fit then more than it fits now: “the interdisciplinary study of American culture.” Or the multidisciplinary study. I think both work. And when you have both its best of all. You have a lot of different kinds of people.

But I’ve seen it change so much. Its amazing, when you think about Perry Miller and Henry Nash Smith and all these other luminaries, to see where it is now. I sometimes evince a little nostalgia for where it was. And it’s constantly changing. I remember Jeff Meikle once gave a talk on “what is American Studies?” And he would always talk about it as this ongoing identity crisis. But I think that’s true of any interdisciplinary field. Or really any field. Anthropology has always been called anthropology, but my God! They have experienced light-year kinds of changes, even over the past of twenty or thirty years.

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